Comic Books, Black History, and Education

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, Washington, D.C., photographed by Carol M. Highsmith, 2011 (Courtesy of LOC)

Instead of “Unjust to the South” stamped on the inside of our books, we have “promotes/ensures patriotic education” typed into law. Texas’ HB 2497, or the Texas 1836 Project, seeks to have state agencies “ensure patriotic education” in public spaces such as museums and state parks and “to promote patriotic education and increase awareness of the Texas values that continue to stimulate boundless prosperity across this state.” The Texas Senate passed SB 3 in July, and in doing so, removed most mentions of Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and women from the curriculum, including Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream,” the United Farms Workers strike, Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Susan B. Anthony, and more. As well, they struck through HB 3979’s requirement that the curriculum include “the history of white supremacy, including but not limited to the institution of slavery, the eugenics movement, and the Ku Klux Klan, and the ways in which it is morally wrong.” 

The deluge of similar bills in states like Oklahoma, Iowa, and Arkansas stem from a long history of policies and laws that work to erase the voices and narratives of individuals. It’s a constituted effort that the United Daughters of the Confederacy used to promote the Lost Cause narrative, and it’s one that things such as the nine-word-problem which condenses the Civil Rights movement to “Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, I Have a Dream” continue to accomplish. When John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell were creating the March trilogy, they saw this, and in a tweet commenting on SB 3, Aydin wrote, “I was laughed at by colleagues when describing a more and more organized opposition growing to stop @MARCHTrilogy’s adoption in schools. When we asked why the nine-word-problem existed, people scoffed when we said it was a deliberate effort. It’s time to wake up and fight back.”  

Similarly, Powell, in a recent interview with Irene Velentzas in The Comics Journal, said that Congressmen Lewis and Aydin both realized the urgency of releasing March: Book One in 2010 because they each saw the past in the present and “that we were on the cusp of sheer darkness.” Since its release, educators have used March within their classrooms where it has become “a history book.” Powell continues, “As March became the primary source of a whole new generation learning about the movement, any attack on March, especially as we moved into the previous administration, was necessarily an attack on Civil Rights movement history. That was the goal [those attacks were] achieving. By taking March out, you’re doing a lot of work of removing Civil Rights movement history from classrooms.” 

Comics have played a large role in both education and protest. In fact, the Fellowship on Racial Reconciliation (F.O.R.) published Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story in the 1950s, and it played a role in the movement. John Lewis encountered it during a training session in Nashville in 1958, and the impact of that comic ultimately led to the creation of March. As well, as Powell notes, the comic impacted the Western Workers Movement, movements in Central and South America and Arabic and Farsi translations appeared in Egypt and North Africa in 2011.  

Comics, through the use of “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence,” provide an important medium for highlighting the continued impacts of the past on the present, and Black comic creators have had a long history of confronting the past through sequential art. Works such as Tony Medina, Stacey Robinson, and John Jennings’s I Am Alfonso Jones (2017) do just this, and as Bryan Stevenson writes in the foreword, “For many, this is required reading. Like the gifted creators of this amazing book, we need to tell the truth about our history.” That truth is what Medina, Robinson, and Jennings do as they weave the police killings of Elanor Bumpers, Henry Dumas, Amadou Diallo, and more into Alfonso Jones’ killing at the hands of police.

While Rebecca Hall and Hugo Martínez’s Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts (2021) does not overtly serve as a rebuttal to the countless anti-CRT bills proliferating the halls of legislature, it does, through Hall’s narrative of researching women-led slave revolts for her dissertation and through Martínez’s illustrations, counter the bills and it highlights, through the medium of comics, the continued impact of the past on the present. One such moment occurs in the final chapter where we see a two-page spread of Hall walking through Grand Central Station as she narrates, “We are haunted. Haunted by slavery and its legacy. Our country lives in the afterlife of slavery.”

Martínez’s artwork depicts rays of light streaming through the windows and casting images of the past on the floor. One image is a Jim Crow sign, another is a group of whites in a lynching photograph, smiling and laughing at the camera as we see the feet of two Black individuals dangling from a tree, and the third is whites walking away from Greenwood in Tulsa as it burns during the 1921 Tulsa Massacre. Martínez’s images, cast on the floor, draw attention to the continued legacy of chattel slavery in the United States. Hall continues this thread through her narration as well when she points out the history of slave patrols and policing, the stereotypes that we carry within us, and how the children that enslaved women gave birth to were considered property, not children. The page concludes with an excerpt from Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia where he lays out stereotypes and misconceptions about African Americans and those he enslaved.

Early in Wake, Hall walks through New York as the past and the present swirl around her. In a three-panel sequence, Hall walks in front of the New York Stock Exchange. The left panel and the right panel show Hall walking in front of the exchange on Wall Street in the present, and the panel in the middle shows the same street in the 1700s with an enslaver and a coffle of enslaved individuals walking up the street. Before this sequence, Hall asks, “Have you ever seen something out of the corner of your eye but when you turn your head to focus, it’s gone?” Hall answers the question over this sequence, saying, “Like invisible forces have shaped everything around you but you’ve lost the words to describe them. This is what it means to live in the wake of slavery.” Wall Street was a slave market from 1711 to 1762, and the slave trade built up Wall Street and the stock exchange. Hall doesn’t mention this, but Martinez’s panels make the link for us, bringing this information to the forefront in relation to Hall’s narration. 

Later in the chapter, Hall’s partner calls her, and while she’s on the phone, a white man in a suit bumps into her, not even stopping to apologize. He treats her as if she is invisible and not worthy of his recognition. When he hits her, we see the man and Hall in the present, and reflected in the glass, we see the white man dressed in colonial garb, a smirk on his face, and Hall in modern dress falling backward. She narrates, “We think of slavery as something that happened in the South, on cotton, tobacco, and sugar plantations,” not in New York and the Northeast. Again, the past and present collide. The history of slavery raises its head in the present in the callous way that the white man treats Hall.

These things linger within our collective psyche, pulling and tugging at us. The haunting of the past causes trauma, as Hall points out throughout the text. Near the end of Wake, Hall holds an archival manuscript within her hands and narrates, “We must use our haunting to see how Black life truly is and see how it could be otherwise.” In the next panel, the manuscript crumbles in her grasp, and she narrates, “We must live in an alternative Black temporality where we reach into the past to ‘reimagine the future otherwise.’” The third panel depicts Hall piecing the manuscript back together as she says, “the story we are given of being Black in America is that we have no past, and we have no say in the future, the future that doesn’t contain us.”

Martínez concludes this four-panel sequence by showing Hall saying these words during a lecture, and she ends with, “But it must.” Here, Hall and Martínez get to the importance of memory and history. She points out earlier how the narrative gets written, obfuscating the past and presenting it in a one-dimensional manner. David Walker, Frederick Douglass, and more had to fight the construction of history from the founding of the United States. The current debates over education and teaching history reflect that this has been an ongoing battle, one that shows no signs of letting up. That is why Wake is so important. It calls upon us to remember that we must be aware, we must be knowledgeable, and we must be prepared to fight for the truth.

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Matthew Teutsch

Matthew Teutsch is the Director of the Lillian E. Smith Center at Piedmont College. He maintains Interminable Rambling, a blog about literature, composition, culture, and pedagogy. He has published articles and book reviews in various venues including LEAR, MELUS, Mississippi Quarterly, African American Review and Callaloo. His research focus is African American, Southern, and Nineteenth Century American literature. He is the editor of Rediscovering Frank Yerby: Critical Essays (UPM 2020), and his current project examines Christopher Priest's run on Black Panther. Follow him on Twitter @SilasLapham.

Comments on “Comic Books, Black History, and Education

  • From @MelvinHardy2: Great article. Superior history. Do you know of the work of Ted Shearer and Quincy and how might you place such work in context? Would love to know your response.

    Reply

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